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Michael the Sorcerer

Episode Seven. The Ziggurat

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Michael and Theopiles traveled up the Nile in a barge owned Damanhur, an Egyptian trader. Besides sails, the ship had twenty sweating oarsmen below decks breaking their backs to row against the swift current. Damanhur was a greedy fellow who not only received a huge sum in payment for their passage but had to be told that there was a gold mine at the end of the journey before he would agree to take them so far up the Nile. He kept going on, to whichever one of them would listen, Michael or Theopiles, about the terrible dangers upstream in unknown, uncharted territory. Nonetheless, after Theopiles gave him an incredible sum and mentioned the mine at the journey's end, he relented and had his crew set sail.

Damanhur had not exaggerated the difficulties and dangers upstream. Where the current was swift, they moved slowly; where slow, more swiftly; in this way the river itself determined their progress. While they were still in the lands of the Egyptian sultan, Michael watched from the rail as they passed enormous plantations of wheat and sugarcane. Damanhur told Michael that all this land belonged to the sultan. Lines of camels and donkeys moved along the river bank among palms and tamarisks and villages. White egrets fed in the swamps, pigeons roosted on rooftops and herons and storks stood in the shallows. After a while, however, this rich farmland turned into stark rock and arid yellow sand.

This desolate landscape lasted for hundreds of leagues. After several weeks the desert gradually changed to steamy jungle. Michael had never felt such oppressive heat, perspiration ran down his body in rivulets. Even small tasks were an enormous effort to perform, and heat prostration was an ever present danger. Theopiles told him to drink plenty of water and to stay in the shade as much as possible. He gave Michael salt to lick which relieved his lightheadedness. To make life aboard the barge even more miserable, enormous mosquitoes, blue tailed flies and gnats swarmed around in great clouds, buzzing and biting and flying into Michael's eyes, ears and nose.

The river teemed with life, crocodile, hippopotami and piranha. Near its banks Michael saw great herds of elephant and buffalo bathing in the muddy water.

At times Damanhur stopped at a village of grass huts along the bank. The people who greeted them were so dark-skinned that the first few times Michael, who thought the Saracens the darkest people on earth, saw them he feared that they were devils or demons. They wore hardly any clothing, just simple breechcloths to hide their loins. Except for beads, earrings or other jewelry, both men and women went bare above the waist. The children were completely naked. Michael asked Theopiles whether they were descending into hell.

He replied, "No Michael. Although this part of Africa may give thou a taste of the nether world, these people, although dark-skinned, be as human as thou and I." ††††††††

After docking at one such a place, Theopiles, Michael and Damanhur called upon the tribal chief to pay their respects. Michael gazed around at the village as they strolled through. The people lived in huts made of poles, straw and mud. Each hut had its own small garden. Naked children played and cavorted in the sandy soil. Women, some young and beautiful despite their dark complexion, non-European faces and kinky hair, toiled at various crafts and tasks. They wore simple loin cloths that covered very little of their bodies and decorated themselves with bracelets, necklaces, rings and large earrings of metal and other materials. The men dressed similarly but were less active. For the most part they merely squatted near their homes staring at the strangers.

The chief's hut was much larger than the others, and two large warriors with spears guarded the entrance. When Michael's party entered, Damanhur and the other Egyptians who had accompanied them prostrated themselves before the dark king. Theopiles indicated that Michael should do the same. Michael and Theopiles knelt behind Damanhur and his crewmen with their foreheads touching the bare earth. The chief said something in a strange guttural language. It must have been a release because Michael saw Damanhur and his aides raise their heads. He and Theopiles followed suit.

While Damanhur and the chief conversed in the tribe's strange language of hiccups and bird calls, Michael gazed around curiously. The chief, a large man once muscular, but aging and going toward fat, squatted cross legged on pillows. He, like his underlings wore little in the way of clothing, but much more jewelry and a European-style hat for a crown. Several young women crowded around him, fanning and petting him. A tall man, wearing an enormous mask and whose body was painted with white stripes, stood to one side holding a shaft with feather streamers at one end.

After several minutes of conversation between the chief and Damanhur, one of Damanhurís men opened a box of cheap trinkets which he placed before the chief. The headman, Shakala, examined the trinkets, smiled and spouted out orders. A slave took the chest away. In a few minutes, after men entered with fruits, steaming vegetable dishes and local delicacies, Shakala and his guests broke bread. The feast lasted for hours. Afterwards Shakala's visitors were shown to a large hut where they could spend the night.

Before they retired, however, they were shown several young girls from which they could choose to spend the night with them. All except Theopiles accepted this offer. Michael found his choice accommodating and experienced, satisfying his desires so well that he slept little that night. He was also disturbed by the strange jungle sounds that surrounded them, bird cries, the buzz of insects, hoots of monkeys and apes, the strange laughter of hyenas and the roar of lions and other large predators.

In the morning Damanhur traded goods for additional slaves to work the oars. These were men captured during a war between Shakala and another tribe.

This was the first of several similar stops along the river.

After many days the river made a great S-shaped turn and was broken by cataracts, rapids and waterfalls. To surmount these obstacles they had to portage the barge using logs and back breaking labor. The crew, Theopiles, Michael and Damanhur worked right along with the slaves. There was danger too -- unfriendly natives, crocodiles, hippopotamus, other wild beasts and disease. Some of the crew and slaves succumbed to fever and other mysterious ailments. Some simply keeled over from the terrible humidity and heat.

When the river divided into two main branches, Damanhur chose the fork that into the mountains. Along this branch, the natives were thin, lively and good-looking with skin coloring that ranged from light coffee to deepest black. Once the barge sailed past the mountains, the river headed into a great gorge a third of a league deep and five leagues wide in which the heat and humidity was again awful. Even the wildlife was less numerous.

For over a hundred leagues, it continued in an immense curve, first south, then east and finally north. At the end of the gorge the river fell from a prodigious height producing a grand spectacle that caused Michael to marvel. The waterfall thundered as it fell flinging upward a continuous spray that blew upon the hillside. This perpetual rain created a forest of wet green reeds that waved from side to side like seaweed at the bottom of the sea. Little black birds with pointed pink wings flew into the spray and landed on the slippery rocks at the lip where the water started its frightful downward plunge.

The barge could not be hauled to the top of this enormous height. Hence, before the journey could continue, the supplies were unloaded and strapped to the backs of the slaves, who had to haul them up the exhausting steep incline. After a day of climbing, the party trekked as close to the river's banks as the thick scrub would allow. In the section of river that they followed, rough hills were on the opposite bank. On the near side were black soil plains and in the distance, volcanic mountains.

Once canoes could be launched back into the river, the stream boiled turbulently over rocks and inclines giving Michael a wild ride that set his adrenaline pumping. When it became too tumultuous and shallow to continue, the caravan used machetes to chop through a forest that contained acacia, lotus, banyan, eucalyptus, palms and baobab with broad shady leaves, and swarmed with fish eagle, white storks, starlings with iridescent blue feathers, black ibis, pelicans, darters, hoopoes, rollers and kites, whose calls became a symphony of caws, hoots and whistles.

In the last month of Michael's term of service with Theopiles, they set up camp on the shore of a lake so enormous it seemed an inland sea. The next morning Theopiles spoke to Damanhur. "This is the end of our journey. I and my slave must go on to another shore alone. Less than a league from here, you will find a place where gold can be dug from the ground." He handed the Egyptian a map. "We will return by the next full moon."

He obtained a dugout and two natives to paddle it, and he and Michael set off across the lake. As they left the shore, Michael said, "Master, how can we be sure that Damanhur will wait for us? I do not believe that he is trustworthy."

Theopiles tapped his forehead with his finger. "Once he finds the gold, he will dig for it as long as the ore holds out. Do not worry, he will be there when we return."

They paddled for most of the day, finally dragging the dugout onto a sandy beach. Theopiles ordered the natives to guard the boat and led Michael into a thick highland jungle through which they had to hack their way for several hours. Near sunset they came upon ancient ruins. Over the centuries, however, the mighty jungle had swallowed the city that had once existed there, whole. In the center of these ruins was a pyramid, not as large as the ones Michael and Theopiles had visited in Egypt. Also, it was stepped with seven great steps, each as high as a man is tall, as though a great giant needed a stairway to get to his front door. Although this edifice was covered with vines and creepers, Michael could see that top surface of each step had been dyed a different color. Although the dye had faded until the hue were extremely pale, they were still visible. From bottom to top, they had been painted black, white, red, blue, yellow, gray and gold.

"What be this place, Master?"

"It be called the Ziggurat. Thy time hath come, Michael. Tonight, the last night of thy obligation to me, as I hath promised, I wilt perform the sorcery that give thou, thy chance at becoming immortal. I must warn thou, however, that I am about to perform powerful magic, and there is extreme danger, which I will explain to thou. Art thee still determined to achieve this mad dream of thine? If thee say no, I wiltl understand. Thee wilt still be set free unconditionally, and we wilt return home."

"I still desire with all my heart to be immortal." To himself Michael thought, Is Theopiles trying to weasel out of his oath?

"Very well, we must wait until dark. Meanwhile, I wilt tell thou how we shall proceed and what thee must do. Let us make ourselves comfortable while I explain."

Michael and Theopiles took seats on huge square blocks of stone half buried in the soil. Michael looked about him and wondered what this place had been. The ruins and broken columns covered a large area as though a great city had once stood there. From the amount of vegetation that had taken over the ancient city, Michael felt that whatever calamity had destroyed it had happened a long, long time ago. Perhaps eons had gone by since it thrived.

"Before thou inform me about the magic thee wilt perform Master, could thee tell me what city once stood on this spot and what happened to it?"

"I cannot. I first came upon this place by following clues in ancient legends. All I know is that legends say that whatever catastrophe overcame the beings who once lived in the city that was here occurred before the coming of man."

"How could that be master? The Almighty created man on the sixth day."

"So say our Judeo-Christian bible. But not everyone in the world believes that to be the truth. Some say that the world was created millions of years ago by Gods that we Christians call pagan myths.

"Nonetheless, there be no clue as to what happened to this city or its citizens, or whether they be human or something else. All I know for sure about this place is that it be sacred to Asmodeus, who some say be a demon, others, a god. And that be why we hath come to this desolate place. If thee wish be granted, it be Asmodeus who shall grant it."

"A demon, Master?"

"Or a god. And a very important and powerful one. That is where the danger comes in. For if thee make the tiniest mistake, Asmodeus wilt instantly murder thou and steal thy soul. Do thou still want to go through with it?"

He be still trying to discourage me, Michael thought. Each time his arguments become stronger. He knows that I wilt kill him if he held me in bondage all these years based upon a lie. "Yes Master, I be willing to face this demon or pagan god, no matter how fierce. I have not come so far and given up so much to quit now."

"What an obstinate fool thee are, Michael. Very well. Here be the procedure. At dusk I wilt light four braziers, one at each corner of the Ziggurat after which I shall perform certain incantations. Then I will hand thou a potion that thee must drink down to the last drop without removing the cup from thy lips. Do thou understand?"

Is he going to poison me? Michael thought. Dare I drink the potion? But then, if I do not, he will say that his magic wilt not work otherwise, and he wilt be able to wiggle out of our agreement in that manner. He becomes desperate. He knows that I hath such thoughts. Well, I wilt ask him to take one sip first.

"Yes Master."

"The potion will make thou slightly intoxicated at first. Do not worry about it; the muddleheadness wilt soon pass. When thy mind clears, mount the first step of the Ziggurat and make the following obeisance to the goddess Ishtar." He recited the words that Michael must say. He told Michael that he must do something similar on each of the six remaining steps, each time to a different ancient god. "After thee hath said thy prayer to the god Samas at the top of the Ziggurat, a doorway will appear. Thee must step through and meet the demon Asmodeus. Thee must prostrate thyself before this powerful entity, knocking thy head three times on the stone floor. Do not rise or say anything until he tells thou to. He will ask thou whether thee know who speaks to thou. Thee must reply exactly as I say now. Thee must say, 'In truth thou art Asmodeus.' And thee must repeat that statement two more times. Asmodeus wilt give thou certain gifts which thee wilt accept without comment. (Afterwards thee wilt turn these over to me. They be my reward for bringing thou here.) He wilt ask thou whether thee hath any questions. At that time, thee must make thy request, but thee must be careful to phrase it in the form of a question. Nonetheless, Asmodeus wilt reply truthfully."

"Suppose Asmodeus tells me that what I ask be impossible? That I cannot become immortal."

Theopiles shrugged. "That be the risk thou take. If Asmodeus cannot make thee immortal, no entity in the seven spheres of heaven, in the underworld or upon the earth can except for The Almighty Himself."

Again Michael suspected that Theopiles wanted Michael to release him from his obligation. Nonetheless, he replied, "So be it."

†† *†† *†† *

Michael and Theopiles rested until the sun was low in the sky. While Michael admired a gorgeous rosy tropical sunset, Theopiles prepared his magical paraphernalia. He brought out four braziers which he mounted on long poles made from striplings Michael had chopped down earlier and sharpened at one end. Theopiles took them one by one and drove them into the ground at each corner of the Ziggurat. He gathered twigs which he lit using a flint he had brought along, thus starting a small bonfire.

By this time the sky had turned purple, and the jungle became a black amorphous shape. The brighter stars appeared in the darkening heavens, and the small fire blazed like a welcoming beacon in the awful darkness of the surrounding jungle. Theopiles retrieved a brand from the bonfire and a bottle of oil from his pack. These he used to light the braziers. Michael shivered. The time was drawing near. What if all Theopiles had said was true? He would have to face down a powerful demon. Well, so what? He had gone this far and given up so much. And the prize -- yes, what a prize it was. After all, it was not the first time he had faced danger since becoming Asmodeusí servant, from armed men, wild beasts, disease, even a dragon. What could a demon do to him that these other things could not?

He watched as Theopiles mixed powders and liquids in a pewter cup and chanted a magical formula over it in words of a language Michael had never heard before. It was now pitch black everywhere except for the small fire, the braziers and the night sky ablaze with stars. A crescent moon had made its way over the mountains in the east. The usual jungle sounds were quieter than on most nights as though the howlers and hyenas were aware and frightened by the sorcery being performed.

Theopiles turned toward Michael and held out the cup.

Michael grinned at him. "Have thou tested thy formula to ensure that it be correct?"

"What be the matter Michael? Do thou not trust me? Do thou think I wouldst poison thou, someone I regard as a son? For shame." Nevertheless, Theopiles sipped a small amount of the cup's contents and again offered it back to Michael.

Satisfied, Michael took it from Theopiles hand and drained it with one gulp. It was extremely bitter, but he breathed slowly to keep from gagging. Theopiles faced him and repeated another chant. Michael recognized it as one Theopiles used to protect men from evil influences.

After a few moments, Michael became lightheaded and began to sway. He needed to spread his legs to keep his balance. Soon, however, his head cleared. In fact he seemed to have achieved a higher plateau of thought. Things that were unclear to him before became like crystal. New knowledge seemed to pour into him. He felt godlike.

"Art thou ready, Michael?"

"Yes."

"Mount the Ziggurat and do exactly as I told thou."

Michael did not reply but climbed the first step of the pyramid. Here he stood, raised his arms toward the planet Saturn and said, "Adar, god of hunting, hear my prayer. Protect me from all evil influences and help me find the game I seek."

He climbed to the second step. In a similar manner to his actions on the first shelf, he raised his arms toward the planet Jupiter. "Marduk, the creator and victor over chaos, awaken a dweller of the dark land of the dead for me. His name be Asmodeus."

On the third step, he faced Mercury (actually the spot where the sun had been earlier since the planet had already set). "Nebo, god of wisdom, give me the knowledge I need to deal with the terrible demon I am to meet."

On the fourth shelf he turned toward Venus. "Ishtar, goddess of love, soften the heart of the awful demon I am to encounter."

On the fifth shelf he raised his arms to red Mars. "Oh Nergal, god of war, make me strong to face the horrible demon without flinching."

On the sixth shelf he faced the moon. "Oh Sin, god of death, grant me an audience with the terrible Asmodeus so that I need not ever appear before thee."

He climbed to the top of the Ziggurat which was a single flat stone ten paces by ten paces with an artistic rendition of the sun painted on its surface in gold. He looked down upon this and spread his arms and fingers toward it. "Oh Shamash, god of truth and justice, grant that I receive a fair hearing by the demon I am about to meet."

The moment that he completed this last prayer, there came a great rumbling, and the pyramid shuddered as though shaken by an earthquake. Cracks appeared in the stone and a large square section of the pyramid's top rose out of the solid stone. When it reached its final height, it was what appeared to be a mausoleum of pure white marble, fancifully carved with skulls, strange horrible beasts and naked men, women and children being tortured. At each corner was a fluted pillar. The entrance was of bronze and had a golden handle which Michael pulled to open. It was so heavy that it took all Michael's strength to move it. Nonetheless, inch by inch he worked it until it was ajar enough to squeeze through.

As he headed down a stone stairway that led into the depths of the pyramid, the bronze door slammed shut behind him with a loud clang. At the bottom of the steps was. a vast cave-like chamber with a domed roof at least ten paces above his head and lighted only by flickering torches on sconces that cast looming shadows. A white mist float along the floor, and the moist rock walls dripped with a dark red fluid. The center of this hellish hall was dominated by the strangest creature Michael had ever seen. Seated on a great throne was a gigantic monster, three times the size of a man, with three heads. The left was a fierce snorting bull, the middle was human, but ugly and nasty of appearance, and the right was a horned ram. The creature had goose feet and a reptilian tail. By its side was a small dragon. On each side of the throne were two giants with skulls for heads; one held a spear and the other, a banner. Several beautiful naked young women waited upon the enthroned monster.

Michael threw himself to the rocky floor and knocked his head three times against it as Theopiles had told him to do.††††††††††† †††††† ††

A voice like thunder said, "Arise mortal."

Michael slowly climbed to his feet. To his surprise, it was not the human head who spoke but the one on the left, the bull. "Thee who call up demons, do thou know who of the fiery realms thee have summoned? Come tell me my name, and I will reward thou. Otherwise thee art doomed." The creature laughed and flames shot from its mouth. One of the naked women giggled and snuggled up to the beast, caressing it between the horns.

"In truth thou art Asmodeus. In truth thou art Asmodeus. In truth thou art Asmodeus."

Michael's voice quivered as he pronounced the magical formula. Suppose he did not do everything exactly as Theopiles had said. His mind whirled. Was he to pronounce the sentence three times or four? Was the obeisance he had performed exactly right? What about the prayers to the gods on the steps of the Ziggurat? Sweat dripped from Michael's forehead and ran down his back in rivulets. The heat, dampness and terrible stench of sulfur made him nauseous and so lightheaded his legs almost buckled.

The middle head smiled in an evil manner, and the ram head spoke. "I see thou knoweth who thee art dealing with. That be good. As a reward I have gifts for thou. Esmeralda."

A dark beauty arose from where she sat between the creatures legs and bowed to it. "What be thy wish oh great and glorious one?"

"Fetch the ring of invisibility, one of the maps and a book."

The lovely female ran towards the back of the cave into the mists. Michael thought that under other circumstances he would reap pleasure from the sight of her bottom waggling enticingly as she scurried away. She returned in a few moments with the objects Asmodeus had ordered, placed them before the creature and bowed again.

"Take the ring and place it on the man's finger."

The girl picked up the ring and stood before Michael. She was indeed lovely, with tawny skin, deep dark eyes with large lashes, perfectly formed breasts and wide hips. "Give me thy right hand," she said and placed the ring on his middle finger.

Asmodeus, from his goat mouth, said, "With this ring thee can become invisible to whomever thee wish. Simply say, 'Ring, I wish not to be seen by so-and-so.' Lucinda, give him the map."

A gorgeous auburn beauty left off stroking Asmodeus' back, retrieved a yellowed parchment and presented it to Michael.

Asmodeus said, "This be a map to a great treasure hidden among the ancient ruins where thou and the sorcerer made camp. Sheila, giveth him the book."

A tall beauty with hair so blonde it seemed to be spun from silver threads left off stroking the demon's tail which she had been sitting astride and fetched the book. She winked at Michael as she handed the tome to him. It was a heavy volume bound in tanned skins. The engraved title was "Secrets of Geometry."

"Now little one, I wilt answer one and only one question that thou ask. So think it over carefully before thee speak."

Michael knew well what he wanted to ask. He had rehearsed it over and over in his mind many times.

"Oh great and powerful Asmodeus, my question be this -- How may I become immortal as the gods be, never dying, never growing old, never falling ill, always as I be now, alive, in the full bloom of youth, strong and vigorous?"

The bull head laughed spouting out fire and the ram head said, "So thee wish to be immortal, as the gods. That be impossible. Thy creator desires that thou remain mortal whilst in a state of matter. Nevertheless, I will grant thou a lifetime of one thousand years." Asmodeus paused, and its human head burst into laughter. "As I gaze into thy future I see that long before thy thousand years be done, thee wilt crawl on thy knees begging me for the release of death. Nonetheless, if thee still desire this curse after a thousand years, thee must summon me again and give me the gift of one who loves thou more than life. For this I wilt grant thou a second thousand years. Every thousand years I shall giveth thou the same choice. In this manner thee might live until the end of time. I also have a warning for thou. Beware the one thee would sacrifice to me. That one could cause thou to lose that which is most precious to thou. Stand before me."

With trembling slow steps Michael approached Asmodeus until he stood where the demon's slave women had stood earlier to receive its orders. The human face sneered and stared him with mockery. It opened its mouth and a great flame overwhelmed Michael. The pain was horrible. Every nerve in his body sent wave after wave of agonizing torture to his brain. When it became too much to bear; his legs turned to water and blessed nothingness blanked out his agony.

that impeded progress. Titans poured gasoline on the heaps of bodies and lit them. The stench of burning human flesh m

If you're enjoying this serial, you may want to read my novels and short story anthologies.

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